Playboy: You were a violinist?
Wallace: Yes, I was a pretty good fiddle player. I was concertmaster of the high school orchestra and won a scholarship to the Brookline School of Music. But when I went to college, I left my fiddle at home. One Christmas when my children were growing up, I pulled it out again and played, but everybody laughed at me. I was so hurt I put the damned thing away.
Playboy: Why were you attracted to broadcasting?
Wallace: I always wanted a piece of the action. All my life.
Playboy: You wanted to be somebody? Is that what you're trying to say?
Wallace: Yeah, in effect, I did. I wanted to be somebody. And being the youngest of four kids, I've always had that in me. I had something to prove. And then I had a hell of a time in high school because all of a sudden, I began to get a really unpleasant case of. . . . [Hesitates; strokes face painfully; can't seem to get out another word]
Playboy: Say it.
Wallace: Acne. I mean, really serious. And, in a strange way, I think that had a lot to do with the development of my personality, of my psyche. Because of that, I liked cloudy days. Seriously. I liked cloudy days. I had a mountain to climb. I had a hurdle to overcome.
Playboy: What kind of hurdle?
Wallace: The hurdle that I wasn't as attractive as my peers. And radio would give me an opportunity, because nobody could look in at me. They heard the voice. They heard whatever was in the intelligence. I was very good at radio, and it didn't bother me that no one could see me.
Playboy: It's ironic that one of the best-known faces in TV today didn't want to be seen.
Wallace: It wasn't that I didn't want to be seen. I didn't think people would want to see me.
Playboy: Do you think this is why, at 13 years past the usual retirement age, you're still chasing around the planet doing stories?
Wallace: Oh, I don't think so, not anymore. It had a great deal to do with why I worked so hard in the early days—I felt I had a lot to prove for a long time. Yeah. That was one of the things. First of all, I wanted to get away from doing commercials. I wanted to get away from emceeing a panel show. After my first son, Peter, died in a hiking accident in Greece in 1962, I decided finally that I wanted to be serious. I wanted to be useful. And fulfilled. So that's what drove me to do what I do.
Playboy: Let's wrap up. You're 78 years old, rich and famous. Your place in history is secure. Why keep working?
Wallace: Because on 60 Minutes I have the opportunity to go to any place in the world and do any story I want, and all with enough time to tell it on the air. I enjoy the chase, the stories. And I confess that when I'm walking through an airport in Omaha or Dallas or Seattle and people say, "Right on, Mike," or, "Do it, Mike," that is extraordinary. It's a playback that most people simply don't get in their jobs. And what the hell would I want to retire for? I'm having a good time!
Playboy: To travel for pleasure.
Wallace: After you've traveled the world the way I have, there isn't such a thing.
Playboy: Ted Koppel, a man 22 years your junior, is working only four days a week now. It's normal to slow down at a certain age. Why don't you have that instinct?
Wallace: Probably because I'm not so self-sufficient as Koppel. I'm not a good loner. I need people around me. I love being able to bump up against younger people at the office.
Playboy: Is it more than that? Do you need to be on TV to feel alive?
Wallace: That's a good question. I don't know yet, but I'll find out.
Playboy: You mean, if and when you retire?
Wallace: Or CBS fires me. But they can't do that until 1998. My contract says I stay until I'm 80.
Playboy: We notice that you speak with amazing candor about topics that might bother most people—your depression, your age, contemporaries who have recently died. Do you think about your own death?
Wallace: Oh, of course. I'd be a fool if I didn't. When you reach a certain age, one of the first things you do each day is reach for the obituary page. I'm fascinated to see how many people make it into their 80s. Eighty-nine! One hundred and three!
Playboy: As you read those numbers, is there some sort of inner turmoil we're not seeing?
Wallace: No. I've never felt better. But I wish I knew where I was going. I don't have a firm conviction, but I rather believe it's like a leaf that falls off a tree in autumn and then gets burned up, and that's it. In my interview this year with Gordon Hinckley, the president of the Mormon Church, he said Mormons believe that when you die, you and the rest of your family will be united forever in heaven. Well, I don't know what I would do with my serial wives. [Laughs]
Playboy: When the history of this era is written, what do you think will be said about you?
Wallace: What the hell is this, an obit?
Playboy: No. But humor us.
Wallace: I think they'll say that Don Hewitt, my Night Beat producer Ted Yates and I pioneered investigative reporting on television to some extent. And that on the subjects of civil rights and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, I've helped move the ball forward about that much [holds fingers half an inch apart]. But there's no false modesty when I tell you that I hardly regard myself as a watershed figure in American journalism.
Playboy: So what are you?
Wallace: I'm a good reporter, and a dogged reporter, and a socially useful reporter.
Wallace: And I would want to leave it at that.